From CBS' 60 Minutes, March 7, 2011
Nationwide, 14 million children were in poverty before the Great Recession. Now, the U.S. Census tells us its 16 million - up two million in two years. That is the fastest fall for the middle class since the government started counting 51 years ago.
One of the areas suffering the most is otherwise advertised as "The Happiest Place on Earth," the counties around Disney World and Orlando. Just on Highway 192, the road to Disney World, 67 motels house about 500 homeless kids. The government counts them homeless if they have only temporary shelter.
In Seminole County schools, 1,000 students have recently lost their homes...
(Beth) Davalos runs the Seminole County programs for homeless kids. "Our numbers go up every day. Between five and 15 new homeless students a day," she explained.
And she told us something else is new: "When I first started this program eight years ago, homelessness lasted maybe two, three months. But now with it lasting three, six months, a year or two years, this is when children are developing who they are and their foundation is broken."
When asked how these students are doing in school, Davalos said, "They're struggling, it's much harder. They're more at risk for not doing well. They're focusing on 'How can I help mom and dad?' We have so many students that want to quit school and go to work."
If you were, as my wife and I were, calmly eating Sunday dinner, when 60 Minutes started airing this story about America's "motel generation," then your meal was stirred in ways that you did not expect. You were shifting in your chair, looking at and away from the screen, closing your eyes and ears so that the details would get some filter and then looking at your partner and wondering what has happened in the world gone amok, after the Wall Street Rape of the middle class.
It used to be that columnists like Robert Novak of the Chicago Tribune and CNN's Crossfire would tear an opponent apart for "starting the class war debate" whenever he appeared on television. Now the question of a class war is almost never even raised in debate, so complete has been the atrophy of the middle class, and so quickly has the slide into poverty and homelessness of the lower end of that middle class started to appear in the motels within one hundred miles of Disneyworld in Orlando.
It is a sad irony that the kinds of programs that schools used to offer to those with learning disadvantages has now been supplemented with programs that attempt to keep these "motel kids" in school, somewhat fed and somewhat able to continue to study and do homework. Some of these kids get a school lunch as their only real meal of the day, in the wealthiest country on the planet.
It is a story that needs to be told around the world, that America, the brightest star in the democratic galaxy, the most innnovative and most ambitious workers in the world economy, and the most compassionate and just and free society known to history fails to feed, clothe and educate its most valuable asset, its children.
And the failure grows exponentially and daily mostly to a blind eye of those responsible for making the kind of budget cuts that gut the very programs these people need to survive, while the wars continue to gobble funds that could be better spent on those children and the lobbyists and the politicians themselves eat very well, thank you very much and go home to considerably more sumptuous surroundings than the cheap motels where many of these kids live in shame with their parent(s).
There are occasional stories of neighbours providing a single room for a family of four, but these stories are exceptions and while generous, nevertheless hem those children into silence, in the middle of the night, for example when they might have to use the washroom, so they don't offend their benefactors.
When the school buses are stopping at the cheapest motels on the strip, the ones built to house the tourists for Disneyworld and the other attractions in the Orlando area, you know the very structure of the American society is crumbling and it could be decades before the recovery includes these tragic children's lives.
It is often said that an individual who has not been wounded, and thereby scarred, is less likely to understand others who are struggling and in pain. It has also been said that such wounds help to build character. As one twelve-year-old put it, in the documentary from 60-minutes, "Now that I know what this is like, when I get out of this, I will be better able to help those who are struggling, because I will understand them much better and know what they are going through." But, who would wish such a rough patch on a whole generation, just because the adult world lost its bearings?